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The Stonemans

The Stoneman Tradition – 2012 (Patuxent)

Reviewed by Larry Stephens

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The Stoneman family, with Pop Stoneman at the head, first recorded in 1924. These were the days of "hillbilly" music, the precursor to country and bluegrass music, celebrated today as old-time music.

Only 3 of the 23 Stoneman children survive today, and they joined forces with 4 other instrumentalists to make this CD. Patsy, in her late eighties, plays autoharp, Donna (in her seventies) plays mandolin and Roni, also in her seventies, plays banjo. All three contribute to the vocals. Roni is the most recognizable of the three, thanks to her stint on Hee Haw.

While most of the numbers are not usually associated with old-time music, the delivery here is a step back to rural communities of an era mostly disappeared from 21st century life. You can still find pockets where this music is played for the benefit of Saturday night listeners (rather than the old-timey music movement), but they are mostly south of the Mason-Dixon line, well off the path of the interstate highways. The singing is unadorned, workmanlike, not especially melodic in comparison to modern bluegrass or country music. Bury Me Beneath The Weeping Willow Tree has been around forever while Have I Told You Lately That I Love You was written decades ago by Scotty Wisemann and is best known as a classic country music song. On The Banks of the Wabash Far Away has popped up in several genres. Anchored by the autoharp, many of today's listeners may reject the sound, calling it outdated and raw, the harmonies not very tight, though it should be appreciated by old-time music aficionados. You have to consider the historic significance of these recordings, the roots represented by the surviving Stoneman sisters.

There are some surprises. Donna-mite, a Donna Stoneman composition that is really a close take-off of Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Stomp, breaks the old-time mold while Rubber Dolly (aka Backup and Push) will be familiar to most bluegrass fans. Don't Let Your Deal Go Down, recorded by Pop Stoneman in the '20s will be familiar to fans of Flatt & Scruggs. Catfish John (a Johnny Russell hit) seems a strange pick in this mix of songs as does Good, Good Girl, which is essentially a classic country song.

Definitely breaking the old-time mode is a Roni Stoneman original, The Boys From Nanjemoy, a number that would fit well into any modern bluegrass playlist. But in some ways, the most interesting song incorporates a recording featuring Pop Stoneman singing the lead-in to Where The Soul of Man Never Dies.

The liner notes talk about "their [the Stonemans] brand of bluegrass" and most bluegrass fans won't hear this music that way, but are likely to embrace it because of the history it represents.